The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Friday, 27 September 2013

Concerning the poet who was short-listed for a prize, then exposed as a plagiarist, but who might have escaped humiliation if he had discussed it with his mother before she developed Alzheimer’s

You probably skipped this news report.  It’s about poetry. CJ Allen once copied from another poet and has had to withdraw from the shortlist for this year’s Forward Prize.  In case we’ve forgotten what paperbacks look like, there's a photograph inside a bookshop.  A woman is facing the shelves.  No men around.  I can’t read the titles, but they won’t be poetry.  Poetry sections aren’t so crammed, and we prefer to browse detective fiction.  If she’s put something under her coat, or in that bulging bag of hers, I hope she remembers to pay.  We all know it’s wrong to steal.

Matthew Welton was the poet-victim.  He found out that Allen had pilfered his work.  Poets, by definition, read poetry, if only their own.  But Welton isn't just a poet.  He’s a literary Poirot.  Hearing Allen read some poems at a public event, Monsieur Welton recognised the words, and bought his rival’s books to check for plagiarism.  It was plentiful.

Poets have a special interest in poetry.  If the sole reason they buy it is to confirm  plagiarism, you can't expect the public to be queuing at the till.  There is one happy note.  When Allen viewed his royalty report and saw these sales appear, he must have felt the thrill which every author feels.

Prizes can raise a writer’s profile and increase sales.  Allen’s profile has certainly been raised.  We may as well believe him when he says his Forward poem is original.  The title must be his for a start: Explaining the Plot of ‘Blade Runner’ to my Mother who has Alzheimer’s.  You couldn’t copy it inadvertently, and you would never do it on purpose.

Poets are entitled to make mistakes, short of stealing other people’s work.  Note the missing comma in the Blade Runner title, before who, a slip which reveals that Allen has at least two mothers, one of whom has Alzheimer’s and one of whom has not, and probably hundreds more, matrons who replicate in perfect shape, but then decline, sniff once a year, or promptly pass away. 

The poem is not bad.  Two or three lines need cutting where he explains too much, but the informal style, the teasing, yet compassionate tone, and the coping-with-a-sick-parent theme are all in vogue at the moment.  Long titles are also fashionable.  I’m thinking of the recent, best-selling novel, The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared.  CJ Allen, the less-than-a-hundred-year-old man, whose exact age I don’t know because he’s not in Wikipedia, who pulled out of the prize and disappeared, must have thought he’d done everything right: ‘I didn’t copy this time, I thought up a long-winded title and I got some comments from Mum (the Alzheimer’s one).’ 

But he was shot down all the same.  He might just as well have called it: Explaining the plot of ‘Blade Runner’ to my mother who has Alzheimer’s, which she hasn’t always had, not when I was cribbing from Welton and she pretended not to notice, just waited for me to crucify myself.

Once upon a time we were convinced that short titles and long texts were more likely to sell.  But poets are a perverse lot.  Item: Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798, and Resolving to Leave Dorothy at Home in Future. Today we have CJ Allen, whose near-prize experience has yielded fewer than twenty lines and boasts a healthy title that can stand on its own eighteen feet like an opening verse.

CJ’s poem has received several ‘likes’ on the apoemaday website.  At first, I thought this was a laxative.  It's not just name.  Read the poetry.  Glance through the comments which readers have left, and you’ll find plenty of references to physical exertion, coitus, for example, and reproductive organs in the mouth, usually a male organ, and one mouth in particular.  I wonder what the others are saying, the people who don’t like the poem.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Good friends and laughter

I cracked open a fortune cookie last night and read what was on the little slip of paper: You will soon be surrounded by good friends and laughter.  But my friends?  And what will they be laughing at? 

I could do with some good news.  The press have got it in for private tutors – only the well-off can afford this luxury, we now realise – just like they had it in for supply teachers.  Which means they’ve got it in for me again.   Remember the horror stories?  The supply teacher who couldn’t speak English, although no one tumbled to it till lunch time.  Or the chap who left his class to take a call on his mobile phone.  While he was chatting outside, a child set the room on fire. 

I agree to teach Maths to Year 10.  I walk in.  I know the class already.  Charlotte is standing on a desk in the middle of the room, high enough to show the contents of her little skirt, surrounded by good friends and laughter.  It isn’t even her desk.  I write the lesson objective on the board.  A couple of children start work.  There's a break in the noise.  Charlotte calls out: “Do you want to fuck me, sir?”

She always calls me sir.                                                                                       

“Charlotte, that’s worse than anything Tommy said.” 

It was true.  Earlier on, he had thwacked an unpretentious “Wanna shag Charlotte?” at me from his bunker by the window.  No warning, just instinct.  When his twang got no reply, he reflected for a minute or two, then improved the offer: “Would you like to have sexual intercourse with Charlotte?”  

As Tommy reached the words “sexual intercourse,” he slowed down and pushed his lips out in a rubbery, suggestive way.  He never called me sir.  I gave his skill in English some ironic praise. 

There was one more lesson with that class.  I didn’t know it was the last.  Charlotte asked me when my birthday was.  I said I wanted a card, although the big day was not for several months.  She tore a piece of lined paper out of a notebook and did a sketch of herself with stick limbs and Goldilocks hair, with a generous salutation.  She handed it to me.  I glanced at the picture and pointed out that she had skinny legs.  She was a bit deflated.  I still have the card, preserved in a folder along with other important school documents, like the written apology from Sammi-Jo: ‘I’m sorry for being a pian in the backside’ and the huge, anonymous heart with a sword driven through it to the hilt.

There’s a lull.  I sit down and close my eyes. Only for a moment.  Something hits me on the right ear.  A screwed-up ball of paper.  I toss it away.  I’m in the staffroom. Surrounded by good friends and laughter.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Fan fiction

It’s official.  The British are the laziest workers in Europe.  A recent study has shown that they ring in sick more than anyone else, excusing themselves with a range of fake illnesses. 

I suppose if you normally deceive people, you expect other people to do it to you.  When footballer Wayne Rooney rang in sick for two World Cup qualifying matches, accusations kicked around social media that he lacked commitment to the English cause.  He felt he had to prove that he was really injured, and posted on Facebook a photo of his bloodied head.  It was grim, but no doubt there are still people who are convinced that he should stop looking at himself in his bedroom, get back on the field and do what he is paid to do.  With fans like these, who needs an opposition? 

In attack or in defence, the power of social media is enormous.  A picture can be unforgettable.  The Arab Spring is blossoming nicely.  When it began, as despots fell around us, commentators noted with satisfaction the role played by social media in helping idealistic young people organise their protests.  At the same time, images from mobile phones were posted on the internet to show the true suffering of the population and so contradict the propaganda of the regime. 

In the UK, two summers ago, technology gave youngsters with other ideals an advantage over police in the so-called Blackberry riots.  You won’t, of course, bless mobile communication when your grip on the realm is being prised away, finger after finger, by teenagers with a hand-held device.  SLAP! Don’t mention the riots! 

But forget the bad guys. It’s far more embarrassing when the good guys shoot themselves, on film and in the foot, doing things you wish they had done in private or not at all.  I mean the footage of the Colonel, baited, butchered and bundled off to YouTube, the hell of endless hits, when rebels surrendered to the same urge that makes tourists snap each other and hunters screw their kill to the wall.  Although we loved getting rid of him, these antics gave us liberals a problem or two when they were uploaded onto VirtualPurgatory. 

For a start, those of us who queued up behind the righteous ones in the contest with Tyranny are now inconvenienced by images that are, at best, tasteless souvenirs and, at worst, proof that some, if not all, of the righteous ones are as bad as the devil they deposed, their vengeance is so calculated, their cruelty so deftly improvised. 

That’s not all.  Even though we regret that the photographer and his friends are intent on the murder of a human being; that they’re finding pleasure in his pain and humiliation – his true suffering, if you like – and clambering to record their involvement in it, we are nonetheless fascinated.  The jerkiness of the camera enhances the realism, and the horror; it seems we are holding the camera ourselves, we wonder if we could do the same things, and we feel guilty just for wondering. 

These moving images of one, helpless man shame us more than fifty stills of executed loyalists.  A rebel said there’s a Gaddafi inside everyone.  I’m a fan.  He can have a job in my next government. 

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Behind a bush, in the wind: the boys from Brazil

The relationship between UK police and young Brazilian men does not make happy reading.

They shot and killed an innocent man, Jean Charles de Menezez, at Stockwell tube station during a terror scare in 2005.  Opportunities to identify him were missed.  There was a police stake-out at his apartment, but he was not photographed when he started out on his fatal journey because the cameraman was having a piss.  An image of him, passed to police ‘Gold Command’ (I hope there’s no Bronze and Silver) would have confirmed straightaway that he was not the right man.  How many calls of nature have left a person dead?  

With David Miranda, again from Brazil, the police have now shot themselves in the foot.  We are supposed to believe that they just took it on themselves to detain him for nine hours on anti-terror laws.  No instruction from the Home Office.  No 10 just says it was ‘kept abreast’ of what was happening. Washington just says it was given a ‘heads-up.’ Trite metaphors, but this was the very choice which confronted police when the time came to shoot Menezez.  They chose the head in case he had strapped a bomb to his breast.

The material that David Miranda was carrying may have been obtained illegally, but it may also expose how organisations have been spying illegally on their own citizens.  The British government has portrayed the seized data as dangerous.  There is certainly a danger here to any organisation caught with its pants down.  Such embarrassment can be fatal.  However, it is in the public interest to know when government agencies break their own laws. 

Terror laws were used on this occasion to intimidate and stifle investigative journalists.  They are meant to be used randomly, but they targeted a particular individual.  Miranda was questioned about his ‘entire life.’  Once again we are talking about the entire life of a young Brazilian man.  Less than thirty years, but well beyond the span of a democratic government.

Nine hours can be a long time.  Still, there are vital parts in every investigation.  We wouldn’t want to let anyone down.  The police employed six agents. They rotated the questioning.  None of them had to wait more than ninety minutes for a piss.